Letter #36

Good morning / afternoon / evening everyone,

I hope you’ve had an absolutely sterling week. Last week I was away with work, so had the treat of waking up Friday morning to Olly’s guest letter. Big thanks Olly. I have to confess, although it can sometimes feel like a huge effort to put this letter together every week, I do miss doing it when there are guest editors!

This week’s letter is a bit different, but please read on.

The break in putting these letters together does me some good, and the last two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the format of the letter, and the way the mixtape is presented. It’s brilliant that we continue to grow, but it’s easy for me to forget that we have a huge number of people who are on their 30+ letter. I never want this to get tired, or predictable – for either you, or for me. While I know that around 65% of you read the full letter, and even more listen to the mixtape, I’ve now written enough of these to see trends occurring and one of them worries me a bit. Namely, if I include more ‘popular’ artists in the first ten tracks (or better, mention them in the TL:DR section) then the number of you clicking to listen goes up.

It’s clickbait, effectively.

– 🎣  –
It lures you in, and this is fine. I understand that sometimes some of the musical choices might be a bit left-field or downright odd (the sounds of Texas bullfrogs in letter #7 was probably a step too far 😂 ). But most of you have now listened to enough of these mixtapes to hopefully trust me. So I’m going to remove the track list, and unless it absolutely calls for it, I’m going to only reference genres or artists in the notes. There will still be a TL:DR section of interesting links, and there will always be a set of notes, but in a perfect world each week I’d like you to click the link, press play, and continue reading the letter.

There are a few reasons why I think this is important, which I’ll explain in a second, but let’s start as we mean to go on. I’ve found a new flashy button, so please click below for the playlist, and hit ‘play’.

So, why is this important? Well, it’s not you, it’s me. You see, when I see more people clicking the links, I attribute that to more people enjoying the mixtape (this is a false proxy, I know), and by nature I’m a bit of an unnecessary crowdpleaser. Actually, that’s putting it too politely, let me go again; the increase in clicks feeds my vanity. So, from now on I’m going to focus on finding interesting new (new, not ‘new’) music, and not worry about having to ‘play the hits’. If ‘the hits’ come up naturally, fine, but otherwise it should be about exploring new music. When I first set this up, it was about sharing interesting music and cultural stuff that I’d found that week, with people who I thought would appreciate it. The promise remains, but I have to keep myself in check a little. I hope you understand.

Now, it is actually also a bit you, as well as me.

I’ve read two books in the last few weeks that have had a pretty profound effect on how I think about culture, music, and curating and writing about them. The books were Hit Makers, and Every Song Ever.

One of the core ideas that I took Hit Makers was that for something to become popular, it has to have the right balance of familiarity, and surprise. Too familiar, and it’s conventional and boring, too surprising and it’s intimidating or unrealistic. Now, I’m not about to write an album, or a book, so I had to twist this a bit to think about what it meant for sharing music (and specifically mixtapes) with people. My take is that there has to be something familiar or recognisable somewhere within the mixtape, but importantly it doesn’t need to be at the start. You have to trust me that I’m not going to play thirty John Cale or Steve Reich tracks, and that what I put together will feel familiar, even if you’re not sure why (the original songs behind famous samples is a good example – and a pertinent one for the first track this week – it’s from The Next Episode). Secondly, you have to trust that when I put something weird in, that I’m going to pull it back to normality before you lose interest (hopefully). This type of trust is best typified by some of the worlds finest radio and club DJs; I am not one of those (and never will be), but I do feel like if I explain this to you, that I might shortcut my way to earning the same level of trust you might have in one of those DJs. (I can hope, at least.)

Now, in Every Song Ever, the penultimate chapter talks about community and exclusivity. That feeling of being part of something, and how music can stimulate that feeling. Often, that feeling begins with being exposed to something new. Ratliff explains far better than I do:

“Some of the best listening experiences are the most alienating. You might be a reasonably knowledgeable and well-traveled person (whatever that means), living in a major metropolitan city (whatever that means). You might have a passing familiarity with a few languages, and you might be basically unafraid of looking like you’re in the wrong place. You’ve been the only whatever in the room plenty of times. Yet you will step into a community temporarily redefined and strengthened by ecstasy in a music that, it turns out, you haven’t learned enough about. Essentially you are a child waiting for a stranger to have pity on you and explain the map. You are worrying that you have gotten lost. But being lost is not an absolute condition. It only means that you haven’t received enough cultural information yet. Everyone knows the critical moment, whatever the circumstances, when confusion ends and understanding begins: I’m not lost anymore; I can see the way ahead.”

While I know I have to keep feeding a sense of familiarity, what I really desire is to ease you into feeling totally alienated. One of my ambitions with this whole project is to expose myself to new things. To alienate myself, and throw myself into the unknown, and then come back and hopefully show you what I found and drag you in with me. Over the last thirty five letters a number of people have gotten in touch to talk about new music they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole with; UK jazz, disco, jazz funk, avant garde classical, no wave. I think these experiences are formative. They help us to continue learning, and being exposed to different cultures makes us stronger – don’t let the music you heard when you were 13 dictate your tastes for the rest of your life. The feeling of discovering, and exploring something new is what drives us forwards. It’s what drives culture forwards. Let’s never stop.

This might all seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think as a group of people that I share music and ideas with each week, you deserve to know my thought process on why, what, and how I put this together. I genuinely believe in the power of music, culture, people, and love. I think when these things come together, amazing things can happen – that’s why I put this together. The what and the how will inevitably change and (hopefully) evolve over time, and I’d like to think however passive, that you’re involved in that evolution too. We’re in this together, and the feedback (either expressed as words or clicks) matters to me – but I have to keep myself in check, otherwise I’ll lose sight of why we’re all here.

See you on the dance floor.
Love Will Save the Day

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